Oh yes, there certainly is; and that’s one of the great joys of the job. Generally, I’d say, I’m looking for reviewers to enjoy the books I send them. Life’s too short, and reviewing pays too poorly, to want your reviewers to struggle through something they don’t like – though sometimes, of course, that’s unavoidable. As I said before, however, I am on the side of books and in general wish to celebrate rather than scorn.
I remember very well how early on in my days at The Times, we got in Francis Spufford’s wonderful book, I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination – which I thought looked wonderful, and I am fascinated by all things polar, anyway. Looking through the contacts book I had inherited – I was just starting to build up my own! – I saw Jan Morris’s details on an index card (this was the days of index cards, O Best Beloved). Now – Jan Morris was the writer my mother loved most in the world; Jan Morris was a writer I too had come to love, if not venerate; and suddenly, I was looking at her phone number. I could call her. I could ask her to review this book. And so, with not a little nervousness, I picked up the phone – and there was Jan, her brisk self, on the other end of the line. I described the book – she didn’t like the sound of it at all. But somehow, I was convinced she’d like it. Please, I said, amazed at my own boldness, please just have a look. All right, said Jan. So I posted it off… and you know what? I was right. She adored it. “The thrills of desolation, of icy beauty, of challenge, of human courage, of comradeship . . . I May Be Some Time is a truly majestic work of scholarship, thought and literary imagination,” she wrote. I was delighted, because what greater joy is there in life than discovering unexpected pleasure between the covers of a book?
The remarkable Jan Morris continues to write for me – she’s just filed a piece on a book about the Ordnance Survey, which will have been published by the time this is! I am a lucky woman, is all I can say.
What do you expect from a book review as a Literary Editor?
Here’s another once upon a time story from my early days at the paper. Peter Stothard – then Editor of The Times, now Sir Peter Stothard and the editor of the TLS – wandered into my office and picked up a book. I think it was a book about Jung and the Nazis. “I’d never read that book,” Peter said, “but I’d very much like to read 500 words about it.” Now, sometimes that’s just what you want from a book review – I imagine myself as the reader, the person who’s not sent a zillion sacks of books the way I am, a person who just wants to be informed about the world and all the things in it. Book reviews can certainly do that.
So when I commission pieces I expect them to tell me – and therefore, my readers – a complete story. It sounds basic, but it isn’t, really – and it isn’t basic to convey a lot of information in a compact and entertaining way. The longest review I commission is 1,500 words, which isn’t really very long; often pieces are much shorter. Iain Finlayson and Kate Saunders, who do non-fiction and fiction reviews “In Short” for me, could give masterclasses in the art of compression – each of their reviews is about 150 words long and they tell you everything you need to know! I suppose it’s the same when I am reading reviews for myself – when I read the Guardian’s reviews, or those in the New York Review of Books or the TLS. But I read each of those publications in a different way – they are all aimed at different audiences. You can’t expect the same thing from each one; you’d only be frustrated, that way.
How do you feel the litblogs sit alongside the review pages?
Hurrah for as many voices as possible, I say. To return to the previous point: different strokes for different strokes, is one way to put it. Blogs are personal, a single voice (though often with others chiming in of course); reading a blog, to me, should be more like chatting with a friend than reading a review. And we need both in our lives. Each offers a way of thinking about books – and so about the world.
Tomorrow's questions for Erica...
Is it difficult to read for pleasure and not feel as if you're working, and when you do, who and what do you read...old favourites, new authors, who 'must' we read?
If you were going to press one book on us in the street which would it be?